The murder of Kitty Genovese & the making of an urban myth

Nicholas Lemann, incisive as ever, in a New Yorker article about the 50th anniversary of the case that changed the way New Yorkers looked at their city and themselves:

The fact that this crime, one of six hundred and thirty-six murders in New York City that year, became an American obsession—condemned by mayors and Presidents, puzzled over by academics and theologians, studied in freshman psychology courses, re-created in dozens of research experiments, even used four decades later to justify the Iraq war—can be attributed to the influence of one man, A. M. Rosenthal, of the New York Times.

Unfortunately, as Lemann makes clear, Rosenthal got the facts wrong:

When it comes to assessing the media, it’s hard to get riled about press-generated hysteria over insubstantial matters like Justin Bieber’s legal troubles or Mayor de Blasio’s car running stop signs (unless, perhaps, you’re directly on the receiving end of it). Stories like that of the silent witnesses to Kitty Genovese’s murder represent the real danger zone in journalism, because they blend the power of instinct—which is about whether something feels true, not about whether it is true—with the respectable sheen of social science. In his book, Rosenthal groused, “I did not feel, nor do I now, that the sociologists and psychiatrists who commented contributed anything substantial to anybody’s understanding of what happened that night on Austin Street.” But, if he hadn’t assigned a second-day story consisting of quotes from such people, his version of the Genovese murder would not have taken the shape that it did. The experts transformed a crime into a crisis.

Curiously enough, Rosenthal – who was something of a homophobe – has a less than flattering cameo in “Sexplosion”, the book I reviewed for the Indy a few weeks ago.  Author Robert Hofler couldn’t help noting that the once all-powerful executive editor of the Times now lies buried under a tombstone that reads “He kept the paper straight.”

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